[This journal is in two sections. I didn’t start reading the second half until I’d finished writing about the first, so I didn’t know how it would turn out until I got to the end.]
11 November 2015
First half, to The Stranger Transfigured
Philip Pullman isn’t the first author to ponder what might really have been going on in Palestine 2000 or so years ago. Not that he’s really doing that. The idea of Jesus and Christ being born as twins is a neat ‘what if’ conceit that he has great fun with. He is able to keep wrong-footing the reader, so that the naughty twin is the one who will grow up to be the supposedly ‘good man’, while Mary’s favourite, the one who keeps his nose clean and performs helpful little miracles to get his brother out of trouble, is to be the ‘scoundrel’. (Those childish escapades sound like some of the preposterous tales of Jesus’s early life in the Apocrypha. The simple language – and I’m not only talking about the early chapters – is a combination of folk-tale and Sunday school.)
We’re sort of ready for it, but it’s still something of a surprise when Jesus is told that he is the chosen one. It’s John the Baptist, one of many itinerant preachers at the time, who tells him when he goes to be baptised. I think it’s from roughly this point that you really need to know the stories from the Gospels if you are to have any chance of understanding the ironies. Christ sees the flight of a dove as Jesus is baptised, but pretends to himself that it’s a sign of his own special status. And what he does next sets the pattern. He imagines what might happen if a voice spoke to Jesus from Heaven, but when he describes the scene to Mary later, in his account the words really have been spoken, but to Christ himself. She believes in him, and he’s going to keep it that way.
After the baptism Jesus goes to think about things for 40 days in the wilderness. Christ seeks him out in his desert retreat to offer him some advice. If we know the stories we recognise Christ’s words as those of the Devil. Turn stones into bread, he suggests. Throw yourself off a tower (or whatever) and let the angels save you. That’s how to impress the local populace. Ah. And it gets worse. Christ is the archetypal back-room boy, planning the best way forward for the charismatic front man. (Jesus is definitely charismatic. For all his childhood misdemeanours and their mother’s preference for his brother, he’s always been the one that everybody in the town likes best.) Christ, not without powers of his own, foresees a great organisation – it’s a word he uses either now or later – ‘think of that! Groups of families worshipping together with a priest in every village and town, an association of local groups under the direction and guidance of a wise elder in the region, the regional leaders all answering to the authority of one supreme director, a kind of regent of God on earth!’
When Christ has finished describing the first 2000 years of the future history of the Church, Jesus is appalled. ‘What you describe sounds like the work of Satan….’ And so on. What Jesus doesn’t know is that it’s his brother’s vision that will be victorious, not his own, and I’m reminded of one of the most famous chapters in European fiction. In The Brothers Karamazov Jesus, definitely the one we recognise from Pullman’s story, arrives back in the world at the time of the Inquisition. An old Jesuit explains to Him that He isn’t needed any more. The Church has spent 15 centuries sorting out he mess He left the first time, in which mankind was denied what it wanted: simple answers. That’s what the Church provides, and if Jesus insists on staying He’ll have to be denounced. The people will be happy to follow the priests’ advice and will be happy to have Him executed all over again. Jesus kisses the old priest and doesn’t stay. Pullman must have read it, and makes Jesus, shown what will come if his brother has his way, apparently powerless to stop it.
When Jesus begins to preach, things become more complicated. His ministry as Pullman presents it is based on aspects of his teachings that we recognise from the Gospels. Basically, this Jesus is a ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ type of teacher: if everybody behaves in a fair way towards everybody else, we won’t go far wrong. To that he adds to the mix the idea of the all-forgiving God, and we recognise the parables he uses to make what might seem unpalatable points. If a feckless, spendthrift son returns, the father will provide a feast for him and treat him as well as he will treat the well-behaved son who has done his duty. If a man is hired for the last hour of the day to help finish a job he will be paid the same as those who sweated through the heat of the day. Why should the good son or the hardworking employees complain? They are getting what is fair.
Meanwhile Christ is keeping a low profile. He has started to observe and to keep a record of Jesus’s teachings, but sometimes alters them a little . Some ideas have made such an impression both on the men who are now his disciples and on the many people who count themselves his followers that Christ can’t really change them. (He particularly dislikes the one about the prodigal son. He had remonstrated with his father Joseph when he prepared a feast for Jesus’s return after his 40-day disappearing act, and suspects that Jesus overheard his complaints and uses the story to get back at him.) But other things he can bend a little – especially when things happen that can be interpreted as miracles. Jesus’s rousing words make a leper feel less ostracised, more able to face the world? Clearly, he’s healed. The wine at a wedding runs out, and more appears after Jesus is told. Christ doesn’t mention the words Jesus has with the steward who had no doubt hoped to profit from the wine he’s hidden, only that more wine has miraculously appeared. The sensible, co-operative sharing out of any food that people have with them – some bread here, a pocket of dried fruit there – becomes a miraculous feeding of thousands.
There are a lot of these. Christ takes the bits of Jesus’s teaching that fit his own purpose, leaves out others, and either invents miracles or confirms the truth of miraculous interpretations of events by an uneducated, gullible public. Christ ‘resembles’ his brother, but deliberately fades into the background or listens to reports from an (unnamed) disciple who is present whenever Christ isn’t. He has already begun his preparation of a version of his brother’s preaching when a mysterious ‘stranger’ speaks to him about what he is doing. Who is he? A Jewish church elder? A Greek philosopher (and therefore a Gentile), interested in this man that some are now calling a Messiah? Whoever he is, he encourages Christ to do exactly what he is doing. He tells him he is the servant of truth, whose mission is not to report historical facts, but to present those facts in a way that will bring out their true significance. In other words, says the stranger, keep up the good work.
At the point I’ve reached Christ is met for perhaps the third time by this stranger, the one who tells him exactly what he wants to hear. In the chapter The Stranger transfigured… Christ sees how he is dressed all in white, so that he seems to glow in the sun as he speaks his wise words. This is no foreign philosopher, he decides. He must be an angel. And I’m reminded of another book entirely. In James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner the sanctimonious, holier-than-thou step-brother meets a different stranger. Together they undermine and thwart the popular, charismatic brother at every turn in the name of righteousness. As the novel progresses it becomes clear that the mysterious friend is the devil, and I’m already wondering if that’s who Christ’s ‘angel’ might be. Time to read on.
Second half – to the end
I’m beginning to wonder whether Pullman only really has one thing to say. And it doesn’t feel enough for him to keep repeating the trick of reverse-engineering a plausible narrative from the Bible stories as we know them, with Christ doing the opposite at the same time. Christ is more willing to make the necessary alterations than he was at first and we see him re-shaping events into the narrative we are familiar with. Once we’ve got the idea – long before I stopped to write about it half-way through the book – there’s a limit to how interesting Pullman can make it.
Maybe that’s the reason why he doesn’t only give Christ a conscience – he isn’t a bad man, just misguided – but also brings in the mysterious stranger who can tease out the debates he needs to have with himself. Christ in his role as chronicler, and the stranger in his role as the provider of moral support, both seem to be metaphors of a sort. Christ becomes a metaphorical representative of all the men who, over generations, formed the story of an itinerant preacher into the overlapping (or contradictory) narratives we know as the Gospels. The stranger represents – what? Like Christ, like Jesus, he has the ability to see a future that readers in the 21st Century can recognise. He ends up being a boiled-down version of all the men who, over centuries, decided that particular aspects of the story, such as the miracles, needed to be built up in order for the legend to thrive amongst all the competing stories. He really is the cleric in The Brothers Karamazov, except he knows where it needs to go in advance. What, he’s a time-traveller now?
None of it is clear. In order for the fiction to work on his own terms, Pullman has to bring so many new and arbitrary-seeming plot elements that it begins to feel like a mess. Christ, who could apparently produce miracles as a child, no longer can. So he has to exaggerate whatever Jesus does to make them seem miraculous, because we saw how Jesus responded to his suggestion that he perform miracles of his own. Later, when the stranger’s agenda requires Jesus to be martyred and a resurrection staged, he has to co-opt Christ through a subterfuge. There is no Judas in this version, only Christ receiving payment for betraying his own brother. No, he says, this isn’t what I intended – and it should be a moment of tortured remorse. Unfortunately, it isn’t. For a start, we don’t care enough, despite the humanising of the character that Pullman has been piling on for chapters by this time. And the torture and crucifixion of Jesus, almost off-stage, feel almost sanitised.
By this stage I was finding it all rather tiresome. Jesus has been preaching for weeks and months, apparently convinced of the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. (We never do find out where he got that idea from, unless he simply took John’s words at face value.) Suddenly, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he doesn’t believe a word of it. For eight pages, he speaks to a God that he knows isn’t there – and this is the man who has to be turned into the iconic leader of a new church. But the stranger, whose identity never is revealed, has already set his plot in motion. Jesus is arrested, a bored and cynical Pilate lets the baying crowds have their way, and he is taken off to Golgotha to be nailed up.
Pullman has already made very clear the distinction that Christ makes, and the stranger confirms, between historical fact and the greater ‘truth’. Christ had begun to see through the sophistry of this even before Jesus’s death, but it’s after it that the stranger reappears to put him right. He’s putting him right on other things as well, notably the need for the miracle that will distinguish this particular dead preacher from all the others, the resurrection of Jesus: ‘the miracle will never be forgotten… its truth will last from generation to generation.’ ‘Ah,’ says Christ, ‘would that be the truth that is different from history?’ He’s unhappy about it, but the stranger has him trapped: ‘The truth that irradiates history, in your own beautiful phrase.’ Even though, as Christ asserts, ‘Jesus wouldn’t have recognised that particular truth,’ he still agrees to go along with the stranger’s plan. He will impersonate Jesus, back from the dead, for as long as it takes to convince the disciples and kick-start the next two millennia.
It’s a pity Pullman didn’t keep it simple. The idea of there having been a real story that became distorted by different tellers has become lost. Jesus has died doubting, and Christ is so shocked he retreats into an ordinary, hidden life for a while. But after some time has passed the stranger re-enters, re-kindles Christ’s faith in the project, and the rest is – what? History? Or is it the ‘truth’ that he and the stranger have been so glibly claiming as their own?
By this point, do we care?